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The man, the myth, the legend – ‘Andre the Giant’

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How do you tell the true story of a man who seemingly sprang forth from the mists of myth? How do you ground in reality a man whose life seemed in many ways like fantasy?

How do you do justice to a giant?

That was the daunting task laid before director Jason Hehir when he agreed to make “Andre the Giant,” the very first documentary project springing from the partnership between Bill Simmons’s The Ringer and HBO. And through well-curated archival footage and a host of interviews with people who both knew and cared deeply for the world-famous wrestler, Hehir executed that task to perfection.

Andre Roussimoff was born in a small town in France in 1946. He worked the family farm in his younger years; accelerated growth – later determined to be caused by acromegaly – led him to be man-sized at the age of 12 and far larger than any other man by his late teens.

His tremendous size led him to the world of professional wrestling. Beginning in the early 1960s, Andre – known in those early days as “Geant Ferre” and “Monster Rousimoff” – worked all over Europe, touring from town to town and performing all over. Over the course of the next two decades, he became a massive presence all over the world – the United Kingdom, Africa, Australia, Japan … and eventually, North America.

He worked constantly during the territorial days of pro wrestling in America, working with each of the 30-plus wrestling federations to come in and provide a massive draw for a few weeks before moving on to the next promotion. But it was when Vince McMahon consolidated the territories on a national level under the WWF banner that Andre – now known as Andre the Giant – became transcendently famous in the United States.

What happened next – the celebrated tenure in the WWF, the paradigm-shifting match with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III, the beloved turn in the classic film “The Princess Bride” – all sprang from that widespread fame. Even as his body began to break down due to the ongoing physical strain of acromegaly, he continued to work right up until his death in 1993, a sad tragedy that was both unexpected and unsurprising, at the too-young age of 46.

As someone whose pro wrestling fandom essentially peaked in the mid-to-late 1980s, I have always held a deep and abiding fondness for Andre the Giant. He was billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World and he really did feel that way, a physical marvel; while he almost certainly didn’t reach the measurements with which he was credited (7’ 4” and 540 pounds), he absolutely looked the part. He was something other, a being unbound by the traditional physical rules of our world. He was magnificent – a fact that this film unwaveringly celebrates.

It’s that celebratory tone that sets “Andre the Giant” apart. There’s an unrelenting positivity to this film; it seems that everyone who knew Andre loved him. Every interviewee displays an affection for Andre that is engaging and genuine. Folks from the wrestling world abound, of course, but there are some prominent figures from other spheres. Everyone has a story.

Oh, the stories.

Giants are creatures of legend; Andre the Giant was no different. There are any number of stories about Andre, widely-repeated tales that are nevertheless probably apocryphal. The crazy thing is that the confirmed true stories are incredible in their own right. My personal favorites were the anecdotes that revolved around either his astounding drinking ability or his reputation for prodigious flatulence, but your mileage will vary.

(Seriously – after watching this movie, one of my life’s great regrets is that I will never personally experience an Andre the Giant fart.)

There’s a lot of Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon here, and understandably so – the match between Hogan and Andre at Wrestlemania III in 1987 serves as the dramatic fulcrum of the film. Through those two men – and other wrestling luminaries like Ric Flair and Pat Patterson – we’re given a sense of just how far beyond his peers Andre actually was. We talk about pro wrestling being scripted, but Andre the Giant was one of the few who was simply not bound by those scripts. He was the biggest and strongest among the biggest and strongest; ultimately, he did what he wanted.

But it’s the other moments, the conversations with people outside the wrestling sphere, that offer real surprises and carry emotional weight. The highlights on that end are probably the touching stories from Robin Wright, Cary Elwes, Rob Reiner and Billy Crystal – all of whom co-starred with Andre in “The Princess Bride” – though there’s a solid one from Arnold Schwarzenegger in there too. Andre’s brother appears prominently, while his daughter also appears.

Andre Roussimoff was a flawed man. He dealt with his share of struggles both physical and emotional. He spent his final years betrayed by his body. He was essentially estranged from his daughter. For over three decades, he moved through a world built on a scale too small for him.

“Andre the Giant” celebrates the man who became a phenomenon, a man for whom the phrase “larger than life” eclipsed cliché and became simple truth. It is thoughtful, concise and well-made, a compelling piece of filmmaking that shines a light on a man the likes of whom we’ll almost certainly never see again.

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